Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Sound of the City

Too Sweet To Die

Introducing a "Richland Woman Blues" that began crude and ended up delivering the lyric at least as strong as Mississippi John Hurt, David Johansen told us the New York Dolls used to rehearse the song. He didn't recall why they'd canned it, but hey, he wasn't exactly into mnemonics back then. So assume they figured it would be bad for their image. Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, OK. But folk music was for hippies.

Still, you could see how perfectly its "fashion shop" detail--"With rosy red garter/Pink hose on her feet/Turkey red bloomers/With a rumble seat"--would have worked for the Dolls. And Johansen himself has long since proven a great democrat of song. Proud to cover Bonnie Tyler's "It's a Heartache" or Rodgers and Hammerstein's "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" when he saw an opening, he was just as delighted to celebrate the Bottom Line's 25th anniversary February 25 by forming the Harry Smiths: longtime potna Brian Koonin on guitar, whiz-bang virtuoso Larry Saltzman on banjo and steel-bodied, and Kermit Driscoll and Joey Barron from Bill Frisell's band on stand-up bass and brushed snare-and-cymbals. Although he donned an acoustic guitar for the occasion, Johansen didn't stick as close to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music repertoire as the band name suggested--the announced songs of "death, retribution, and rounders" included his old Bo and Sonny Boy covers. But if the late show started awkward--three songs in, the quintet seemed inordinately pleased by their ability to hit a stiff all-together-on-the-backbeat groove--it found itself on the Anthology's single greatest prize, Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues": "Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/And another time I think you oughta be buried alive."

Resisting Jo-yokels who demanded that he stand up, placating them instead with a Jo-oldies encore capped by a mercifully understated "Heart of Gold," Johansen played the folkie throughout. But of course the once and future Buster Poindexter projected. Performing Dock Boggs like the jaunty party animal the young Boggs actually was, making you hope momentarily that Clarence Ashley would get away with murdering Little Sadie, milking Son House's "Death Letter" for theatrical gestures that climaxed with the bluesman putting his arms around a memory, he expanded his image yet again. And if someone wants him for a hippie tribute, he'll find great songs there as well.

Village Voice, Mar. 9, 1999